Friday, July 30, 2010


"No doubt the admonition to 'take only photographs, leave only footprints,' is desirable in certain sensitive or pristine areas. But it is inappropriate in most situations because it is a fundamental denial of who we are: creatures of the earth whose most ancient heritage (or birthright, if you will) is foraging for food in the forest.

This enforced separation of human being from the natural world can only undermine support for public acquisition and protection of habitat. The more we view the forests and fields as a resource...the more likely we are to cherish that resource. Protecting habitat for aesthetic reasons alone lends credence to the argument that a few widely scattered parks are enough. But harvesting a sustainable yield of mushrooms, fish, and other wildlife creates a quantitative demand for habitat on top of a qualitative one."

David Arora, All That the Rain Promises and More, p. 254.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

oysters and cauliflower

Oyster and cauliflower mushrooms, that is.

We've been looking for (edible) mushrooms on outings the last couple of years, largely without any success (see here, here, and here, which are only a few of the times we've hunted for mushrooms while out and about). We're still working on the learning curve, using a stack of references and field guides to puzzle our way through identifications and being very, very cautious about what we've picked and handled. Up until the other day, the only thing we'd picked and eaten on our own was a small bunch of shaggy manes and puffballs. Since it has been raining up in the mountains the last couple of weeks, we swung up to 9000 feet or so in a nearby range and checked around a bit. Over the course of the day, we saw elk, deer, turkeys (with half-grown chicks) and grouse (with chicks as well). Although there weren't a whole lot of mushrooms out, we did come across a couple of nice edibles.

First, we found oyster mushrooms, a good-sized bunch growing out of a log right where we'd pulled off the road. Checking that area more thoroughly, more logs had a few scattered oyster mushrooms on them, but no heavy growths. Some of them were past prime, but we managed to get a nice batch.

We also found one large shaggy mane in good condition and one large shaggy mane that was a bit too old.

Further up the hill, we came across a cauliflower mushroom. Pattern recognition is a funny thing. If I see something through brush that I think might be a piece of an animal, say a deer's ear, it will occasionally prove to be part of a deer, but more often turns out to be a branch or something else that bears a passing resemblance to fauna rather than flora. On the other hand, I'll frequently spot a deer, or other critter, that is only partially visible but I'll immediately know that I'm looking at an animal. In much the same way, this mushroom was unmistakable when spotted on the forest floor. Though I'd never seen one in the flesh before, it was pretty clear what we were looking immediately. No pictures of the mushroom in situ, though, as cameras only work when you charge their batteries. Here's what the piece of mushroom we harvested looked like back home:

Here's a pic of the oyster mushrooms, up close and looking rather shellfish-like:

We decided to try a recipe for the cauliflower mushroom that called for serving it in a salad dressed with walnuts and lemon after first sautéing it in a bit of butter.

The scent of this mushroom is unlike any other that I've encountered, not woody or fungal but rather spicy with citrus notes. The flavor was somewhat similar, although not as pronounced. The texture was really nice- toothsome with not quite a crunch. Overall, very good and something completely different from anything I've had before.

Of course, oyster mushrooms are available in the grocery store, so they weren't the same sort of surprise. These were nice and big, though, so we prepared them in a fashion similar to what we've had in a tapas bar. First, we dry sautéed the mushrooms until they had released most of their liquid, then we brushed them with a little garlic-infused olive oil and gave them a few quick turns on the grill while the meat rested, sprinkling them with salt and parsley.

A light red wine, some buttered noodles, green beans from the garden, a bit of oryx and you have a nice summer meal with just a little more wild to it than the meat alone provides.

One of these days we're going to figure out where the boletes grow, and the chanterelles, and the morels, and hedgehogs, and really big puffballs and....

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

nearly authentic

Just about everyone is familiar with the near ubiquitous fajitas- marinated strips of meat that are grilled and, in most restaurants served on a hot iron platter with onions and peppers. I'd imagine that most folks even know, or can easily enough discover, that "fajitas" (Spanish for "little belts") originally referred marinated and grilled skirt steak, which was thinly sliced across the grain to make the tough meat easier to eat. That dish- marinated and grilled skirt steak, probably originated in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Down there, fajitas were served on a plate with beans, rice, perhaps guacamole or pico de gallo, and with tortillas for wrapping it all up. Since skirt steak was cheap, it was good party food. However, there were no iron platters, no bell peppers, no shrimp fajitas (takes a fine hand to get those off the carcass), and no chicken fajitas.

The best way of serving fajitas also started down in the Valley, in the form of the "botaña platter". Botaña is Spanish for "snack" and in many Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants ordering a botaña platter would get you a selection of appetizers. In Pharr, a restaurant called the Round-Up started serving tostadas (fried tortilla chips) covered with refried beans and cheese, then topped with fajitas, guacamole, chopped lettuce, onion and pico de gallo. When visiting my grandparents back in the 70's, we'd go by there and order one or, if enough folks were together, two, as a botaña platter is served communally. A good botana platter is crispy chips, smoky, chewy meat, hearty creamy beans, rich guacamole, spicy and tart pico de gallo with crunchy lettuce and onions- just about everything good in that style of food, all at once. The lady that started the Round-Up came up with the dish and you can still find good examples of it down there. If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend trying one. Alas, for all the many virtues of New Mexican food, it does not include a botaña platter. Homemade is the only option.

Personally, I'm not fond of the cast iron platter fajita variant. I never order it in restaurants anymore because most the time they use some cut other than skirt steak, the marinades tend to be overpowering, the onions greasy and the peppers overcooked. That's not even mentioning the lack of refried beans and the unlikelihood of getting decent pico de gallo. In addition to those many sins, it isn't what I grew up eating.

Though I am disdainful of the more recent incarnation of fajitas, I do not hold that attitude with any sort of pretense to authenticity in my own cooking. This is because I myself stray from the true path of (beef) skirt steak. Dressing out an elk or a deer, you get meat on the front shoulders that you can take off in big flat sheets and which features long muscle fibers (and a lot of silverskin). Too thin to cook as brisket (unless you get a really big elk), I noticed a long time ago that it resembled fajita meat. Rather than grind it or cut it up for stew meat, I like to remove most of the tough connective tissue (but don't get worried about getting it all) and leave the meat in fairly large pieces. Then, every so often, I'll get hungry for something close to the real thing, fajita wise, and marinate some of that meat in some (cheap) tequila along with lime juice, a little oil, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Then I'll grill it quick of a hot fire and slice it across the grain. It's a good way to get a little Tex-Mex flavor.

Of course, if you're going to go to the trouble of marinating and all, you might as well go the whole nine yards. Here's one version: first, before putting the meat on the fire, fry up some fresh tostadas, as they taste so much better than anything out of a bag.

That, and have some beans on hand to cook into refritos.

A little cheese:

Into the oven:

Once hot, add the (also hot but not put into the oven so you don't lose too much moisture) meat:

Chopped fresh or pickled jalapenos, guacamole, chopped onion (no pico de gallo- in foodie-speak the pico was "deconstructed"), some lettuce and you're just about done.

This botana platter is made with oryx and really ought to be layered a bit higher. However, since it was only for two, we left it low.

No cast iron platters in sight.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

New best friend

My new best friend is this stuff. Self-fusing silicone repair tape. The why is a somewhat long story.

See, A's house has been landscaped, at least in front, with way too much "xeric dirt" and we set out to change that. At one time, long, long ago, the front yard had a sprinkler system. In keeping with the lower water use that we in the Southwest should all be practicing, I set out to put in a drip irrigation system for various soon-to-be-installed native and low-water-use shrubs. Digging out the four sprinkler on/off valves, I found a 2 or 3 inch galvanized line coming in and a tangled mass of corroded galvanized 1 inch pipe going out.

Too much for my (lack of) skills. We talked to a plumber who agreed that, yeah, the big line coming in probably tied into the main line into the house and he could tie to that with a backflow prevention device and a pressure reducer. Now, with the summer rains coming, we set out to get the new stuff in the ground during the cooler, wetter time so that it'd have a chance to get established for the winter and a good start next spring.

We plotted out and dug trenches for the irrigation lines, bought risers, manifolds, emitters and pvc and put the whole thing together. This past Friday, that was all taken care of and we were ready for a plumber to tie into the old stuff and we'd be off planting and other fun stuff. The original guy who'd looked at it wasn't available, though, so we talked to another outfit. They took one look at the original pipe and said that no, they couldn't fasten to that and they'd recommend replacing the main line from the house to the meter.

They further opined that, while we could get someone to try to fasten to the old stuff, and we might get lucky that doing so would not engender any leaks, we'd be living on borrowed time. So far as we know, the original line is nearly seventy years old or so.

The quoted price was about our original budget for the project but, we talked it over and then got to digging out a deeper trench to get the water line to the house, including digging out everything up to the meter including under the sidewalk. That was Saturday, plumbers due this morning.

After much patient digging to get to the meter, ginger excavation premised upon the truly rotten condition of the water line, I managed to whack that pipe with a shovel about two p.m. on Saturday afternoon (Not that hard! Really! It was a tap!). Water began blasting out across the yard, I began cursing and sprinting for the key to turn off the water at the meter. Geyser subdued, it was off to the local hardware store. I was thinking of a couple of big pipe clamps and some thick-ish rubber sheeting but the guy at the store recommended trying a ten-dollar roll of "Rescue Tape". Self-fusing silicone wonder tape in hand, I returned home and cleaned some of the scale (not too much, it's about all that's holding things together) off the pipe and laid in a couple of layers of tape. It's funky stuff. You stretch it to activate it so that it'll stick and it gets hot as you do so (and smells funny- I don't really want to think about what those chemicals might do). The harder you stretch it, the faster and tighter it fuses. One hard part is just stretching the section you're trying to lay down- stretch further up the roll, it'll fold onto itself and immediately become permanently useless (of course, I'm doing all this two feet down in dirt and mud, so nice even wraps are a bit of a challenge). Two courses of tape did not stop the leak and blew out. Approximately five courses of tape, the whole roll, did. Dry as a bone-40 psi nicely contained. Ten dollars. No call to an emergency plumber. A shower that evening. Water in the dog's bowl. I love that stuff.

A roll is going in the truck, another in the house, and one might even get into my daypack.